Developing autonomous technology to assess condition of seagrass beds

Seagrass beds play a vital role in the day-to-day functioning of the planet. However, despite their ecological and economical importance, there is growing evidence that they are under direct threat from both human activity and climate change.

Those threats are to be fully assessed thanks to a pioneering collaboration between Devon-based technology business HydroSurv Unmanned Survey (UK) Limited and researchers from the University of Plymouth’s Marine Institute.

Funded by a grant of more than £266,000 from Innovate UK’s Smart Grants programme, the project will use autonomous vessels equipped with cutting edge acoustic sensors to provide a new and comprehensive means of mapping seagrass beds.

The proposed system centres upon the use of low-impact, fully electric, uncrewed data acquisition platforms and non-invasive survey techniques, and will involve developing and training new machine-learning algorithms to classify submerged aquatic vegetation.

The resulting solution will monitor both seagrass coverage and canopy height, with the sensors being trained to provide a rapid and robust coverage and biomass assessment that can inform ongoing monitoring programmes.

The project, which will include more than 40 days of on-water validation and testing, will build upon existing seagrass research being performed by the University.

It will be developed in Plymouth Sound and the South West region, but could ultimately help researchers map, classify and monitor seagrass habitats globally, driving benefits such as blue carbon sequestration, protection of marine biodiversity and creating the conditions for security of fisheries and ocean food sources.

David Hull, Chief Executive of HydroSurv, said:

“The use of seagrass as a means of carbon sequestration is well-studied and documented, and we’re beginning to see a shift towards initiatives that can monetise protection and restoration of seagrass ecosystems as capture and offsetting projects.
"To support this, we need non-invasive and economic solutions to monitor aquatic vegetation, and this project – in collaboration with University of Plymouth – is an important step in making this vision a reality.”

David Hull, Chief Executive of HydroSurv

David Hull, Chief Executive of HydroSurv

The project builds on existing work by HydroSurv and the University, facilitated through the Marine Business Technology Centre, which has resulted in the development of a new approach to marine surveying.

HydroSurv has developed a range of uncrewed vessels and innovative data capture services, and worked with the University to validate an approach using multiple uncrewed vessels to carry out surveys controlled from a single support craft.

It also furthers the work of both organisations in relation to UN Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water.

The University was ranked 1st globally for the quality of its marine research and teaching in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2021. And, since entering the market in 2019, HydroSurv is elevating its position as a global innovator in remote survey technology and marine geospatial applications through a growing pipeline of projects in both the UK and Canada.

The new project will be led by a team including BSc (Hons) Ocean Exploration and Surveying graduate David Walker, who is now a Hydrographic Surveyor with HydroSurv.

Dr Tim Scott, Associate Professor of Ocean Exploration

Dr Tim Scott, Associate Professor of Ocean Exploration

Dr Tim Scott, Associate Professor of Ocean Exploration at the University, added:

“This is a really exciting collaboration combining our expertise in data analytics and knowledge of the marine environment with the HydroSurv’s technical innovations in marine autonomy. There has long been a need for cost-effective and robust monitoring of seagrass habitats. This project aims to address this need and demonstrate efficacy with a broad range of national stakeholders.
“This really is a research and development project with a great story, starting with a marine science undergraduate research project by David Walker, leading to his new career with HydroSurv, and now an industry leading collaboration boosting business innovation in the South West.”

Read more information linked to this article


World leaders

We are ranked the number one university globally for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal number 14: life below water.

The award recognises the quality of our marine research and teaching as well as our efforts to reduce the impact of campus activities on the marine environment. The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings are the only global performance tables that assess universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Learn more about our rankings

Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2021: life below water

Marine Institute

Representing 3000 staff, researchers and students, the University of Plymouth's Marine Institute is the first and largest such institute in the UK. 

We provide the external portal to our extensive pool of world-leading experts and state-of-the-art facilities, enabling us to understand the relationship between the way we live, the seas that surround us and the development of sustainable policy solutions.

Discover more about the Marine Institute

Ocean exploration and surveying

Examine the physical characteristics of the world’s oceans and seafloor and investigate practical techniques used to explore the oceans sustainably.

Course content is directed towards the requirements of the hydrographic survey industry. Graduates enter the marine exploration community worldwide.

Find out about the Marine Science Undergraduate Scheme